On the Wheels of a Dream South Florida Theater: What It Is And What It Can Be

Who are we? Where do we want to go? What’s standing in our way? How do we prevail? The dwindling days before the season gears up are a prime time for us all, audiences to artists, to invest in a tough self-examination of South Florida theater.

We’ll suggest concrete answers in three extensive essays every other day beginning today. The opinions are ours, but they result from more than 30 lengthy interviews and dozens of shorter ones with professionals in the region and across the country who we will list at the end of each article. In the first part, we define precisely what South Florida theater is and can be. The second dissects the handicaps, shortcomings and challenges. The third offers potential solutions.

It’s unlikely you’ll agree with half of what is suggested. Some observations will seem obvious. Some may even be wrong. Some may get you angry. Good. We’re throwing chum in the water to start an overdue conversation in lobbies, dressing rooms, board rooms and cyberspace. Talk back to us. We want your signed responses in the comments sections at the end of the articles, or in your own essays that we will consider editing and publishing if you send them to  bill@floridatheateronstage.com.

By Bill Hirschman

In this season of election hype, politicians are forever warning ominously, “We’re at a crossroad.” But in our case, South Florida theater is, indeed, at a tipping point.

Theater will never vanish. Young people will always perform for friends in a ratty storefront for carfare. Volunteers will always paint sets for community productions.

But we are at a crucial watershed when local professional theater can either commit to evolving into an even more creative and economically stable art form. Or it will deteriorate into that art-as-a-glorified-hobby model.

Stagnation and status quo are not viable long-term scenarios because the mortality of this region’s “core audience” will inevitably erode the economic base until professionals can no longer afford to stay or even visit the region. Without that level of quality, audiences will dwindle because there won’t be anything worthwhile that can compete with the other arts or mass media options. Theater will become even more a niche.

That urgency to act has nothing to do with the artistic health of 2012 or 2013; it has nothing to do with the seismic aftershocks of the collapse of two tent-pole theaters and two smaller ones in 2 ½ years.

The actions that need to be taken today are aimed five years and 10 years out. Audience building, finding reliable funding streams and the other big challenges cannot be overcome quickly. They require concerted, coordinated campaigns by all the players, not skirmishes or even battles.

Words like “concerted” “coordinated” and “campaign” are drawn from an alien language for most of the players; they have proven incapable of implementing them in anything but the most perfunctory sense. Sending out email blasts touting someone else’s production is hardly enough.

Further, the long-term strategic planning required is not on most players’ radar screens. No one has revealed a vision of where they want to be in five years, let alone ten. They are focused on staying afloat the next season or two and maintaining their slice of the audience pie rather than attending to the real answer: joining together to bake a bigger pie.

And that last phrase, right there, is why the dream of South Florida as a thriving regional theater hub is perfectly feasible, not wishful thinking. It’s already happened. More than a half-dozen theaters have closed, but in the same period more than twice that number have opened.

With imagination, passion and a determination that has triumphed over previous recessions and crippling skepticism, two generations of artists and audience have grown local theater into something larger, broader and more sophisticated than anyone could have expected when audiences walked out en masse from the American premiere of Waiting For Godot in 1956. They worked together to grow a larger audience that would support more theaters and a wider variety of fare.

But first, the basics. The initial step in knowing where you want to go and how to get there is simply knowing who you are now. That identifies what you’re up against and what you’re capable of.

City of Angels: State of the Union

There is no such thing as South Florida theater. It’s primary asset and its primary handicap is its vibrant and divisive diversity. Any discussion starts there.

The rainbow array of audiences, artists, programming, size, support, finances, quality is the absolute opposite of the image of monolithic comfort food and passive audiences that it has fought to shed.

Geographically, the theaters span a swath 110 miles long and 15 miles wide. Aesthetically, they range from the mainstream, highly-organized and well-heeled Maltz Jupiter Theatre in its lush 554-seat facility and reaches to the edgy, ad hoc and penurious Ground Up & Rising with no idea where it will be performing from show to show in Miami-Dade. It encompasses audience-driven programming such as the slate at Actors Playhouse to the we-hope-our-art-finds-a-sympatico-audience ethos of Mad Cat Theatre Company in Miami. That breadth offers audiences a wide menu to choose from, but it also hampers professionals banding together in common cause.

To see the lists of current professional and community theater companies, presenting houses , click here.

It boasts at least 49 professional companies currently producing, plus several tiny companies whose status is unknown. In 1988, there were 23. In 1998, there were 30.

In addition, there is at least one company in the planning stages today, at least 12 purely presenting houses; at least 14 children’s theaters/conservatories, 10 universities with producing theater programs; plus at least 8 community theaters. Those numbers are not complete. For an arts community that secretly doubts its own legitimacy as a substantial regional hub, those are impressive figures.

On the boards, the quality of work is light years better than any outsider realizes and not quite as wonderful as local partisans delude themselves into believing. When producing its best work — say Actors Playhouse’s Floyd Collins , GableStage’s Fifty Words, Mosaic Theatre’s Collected Stories, the Maltz’s Crazy For You or Naked Stage’s 4:48 Psychosis — it takes a back seat to no one in regional theater anywhere, period. But its average production is, indeed, a cut below the average work seen in major regional hubs that have more resources, more supportive audiences and a larger talent pool. Yet inarguably, the frequency of solid, rewarding work has shot upwards over the past three seasons.

Coconut Grove Playhouse

This uptick in quality comes ironically at a time when finances have taken repeated and sustained body blows. Government grants have shrunk, subscription numbers are shrinking for most companies, mid-sized donors are balking and big donors say they’re tapped out. A handful of theaters are in serious economic straits and no one is breathing easily, not even at the successful Maltz and Palm Beach Dramaworks. A curtain never rises that the audience, actors and producers are not haunted by the specter of the shuttered Coconut Grove Playhouse, Florida Stage, Caldwell Theatre Company, New Vista Theatre Company and Promethean Theatre Company.

And yet, many people interviewed expressed cautious optimism – an essential ingredient in having a future. They point to sea changes such as a bustling summer schedule that used to be limited to a half-dozen productions once the snowbirds flew back north.

But no one really can quantify what it is happening because no one at all is keeping theater-only statistics for the region about audience size and demographics, how much revenue derives from what sources, in fact, nothing other than total government grants expended. We spent several days looking at IRS 990 tax returns and grant applications, only to find reliable figures too elusive without investing a huge effort requiring unprecedented cooperation from all the theaters.

What does reliably define South Florida theater are the challenges and strengths at war with each other, the topics we’ll explore through these three essays. On the debit side of the ledger are tangible threats: theater’s invisibility to the public, the fear that financial ruin is not even a season away, miserable pay scales, an unwillingness to join forces, the slow erosion of revenue and the terror at the sight of a vanishing audience. But on the credit side of the ledger are considerable if less corporeal assets: will, imagination, resourcefulness and passion, plus the blessing that many of the solutions are known. That might sound too much like naïve cheerleading, but the flurry of startup companies in the midst of this recession, others troupes’ survival through previous economic maelstroms and that current surge in quality against all odds are concrete proofs of those assets’ efficacy.

The Next Stage: Evolution

These changes and others signal an emergence from a callow adolescence. But it’s still a comparatively young theater community, still learning about everything from budgeting to programming. Other than the Coconut Grove Playhouse and few other houses, professional locally-generated theater has barely existed here for two generations. Other than the snowbirds and transplants, there is no theatergoing tradition among audiences and a limited one for the other arts other than wealthy patrons.

The traumatic theater closures themselves, inarguably damaging, are not intrinsically cause for panic. A Darwinian ebb and flow has always characterized South Florida theater. Some have lasted 20 years; many have lasted just 20 months. At least 72 professional companies have folded since 1975. But at least another 12 have begun producing over the past three years.

To see the list of professional theaters that have closed since 1975 and those that have started in the last three years, click here.

However many people are attending, the demographics of the audience isn’t exactly what is used to be and they aren’t seeing what they used to see.

Unquestionably, older audiences are vanishing. Some Boomers are taking their place, but not in the same numbers. Broward Stage Door, the bastion of condo crowds, is seeing younger patrons on Friday and Saturday nights.

Subscriptions and group sales are shrinking as more people cherry pick what they want to see from a season line-up, often two days or less before a performance. In 2001, Derelle Bunn, executive producer/artistic director of Stage Door, said the two-auditorium theater had 10,000 subscribers. That figure is now about 2,500, due in part to recessions and snowbirds who did not return after Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

August: Osage County

But oddly, as theaters focus on narrower niche missions, the target audiences are flocking to shows no one would have predicted would be hits a few years ago. The Adrienne Arsht Center’s stylistic Death and Harry Houdini sold out most performances and extended in downtown Miami. Actors Playhouse’s productions of the marathon drama August: Osage County last year and the dark musical Next To Normal last winter both did better than expected in Coral Gables. The newly- minted Parade Productions in Mizner Park sold 2,500 of 2,600 available seats for Brooklyn Boy last season.

Some houses are doing phenomenally well. The Maltz – with its smooth machine for publicity and marketing — has sold a record-setting 7,400 subscriptions for the coming season; last season it sold 97 percent of the available 500-plus seats. Both are figures that theaters in any regional hub would sell ingénues at intermission to achieve.

But many theaters go through weekends with unnervingly sparse or heavily-discounted houses, usually mid-way through the run before word of mouth catches up. The Caldwell Theatre’s last two productions this spring in Boca Raton, the mainstream musical Working and the brilliant satire The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, attracted dispiritingly tiny houses.

You can see marginally more students and young adults attending local theater. Most were or are involved in theater in school, but they’re there. Attend any road show of Rent, Lion King, Les Miz, Phantom and, of course, Wicked, and there they are by the hundreds. But they also crowded the bleachers at Death and Harry Houdini. The black holes in today’s demographics are the young parents who have more demanding calls on their time and money, plus Generations X, Y and Z.

O, For A Muse of Fire: Programming Fare

It’s still easy to find the classical oeuvre of Neil Simon, the fifth visit of Beau Jest, the umpteenth revival of My Fair Lady and a slew of Greatest Generation songbook revues. That audience is still going to theater by the vanload if not busload. But those mainstay shows are a shrinking facet of what’s offered.

The Motherf**ker With The Hat

The range today is far, far broader. GableStage prides itself on getting the rights to thought-provoking plays a year after they have closed on and off-Broadway.  Last season, it produced the bracing The Motherf**ker With the Hat. This season it’s mounting David Lindsay-Abaire’s play about class prejudice, Good People. GableStage targeted Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, but lost its bid to the larger Actors Playhouse, so its patrons will see the controversial Venus in Fur.

Theaters have been trying for years to attract a more diverse audience with varying results, mostly by choosing shows with a distinct Latin flavor or African American theme. The pursuit this coming season includes such shows as the horrors of war in the Congo in Ruined at GableStage, the barrio hip hop musical In The Heights at Actors Playhouse, even A Raisin in the Sun at Dramaworks. Past efforts have been modestly successful, but not remotely as well as producers hoped. The Arsht reports having more success bringing in Hispanic audiences with a combination of targeted programming, bi-lingual productions, non-verbal productions such as Slava’s Snowshow and the classic Spanish play The House of Bernarda Alba.

At the same time, a handful of theaters producing works primarily in Spanish continue to survive such as Area Stage Company, Teatro Avante and La Compañía Prometeo.

There’s also been increasing success attracting gay and lesbian audiences, especially during the summer. Kim Ehly’s Baby GirL sold out the entire run this summer and Twentieth Century Way was doing strong business, albeit both were in Empire Stage’s 55-seat venue in Fort Lauderdale. This is not new. The Caldwell Theatre’s artistic director Michael Hall frequently staged plays with a gay element: Bent, The Laramie Project, The Last Sunday in June, The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and Love, Valour, Compassion.

Today, more theaters are searching out provocative (and simultaneously entertaining) fare. But it’s an unfair myth that South Florida once was an intellectual wasteland of dinner theater, unadventurous community theaters and frothy Jewish-themed farces. (It is legitimate to say that the quality of productions sometimes got stuck in troughs of mediocrity.) But there also were national tours of serious plays and varied locally-produced options that nourished a hunger for more than Hello Dolly and The Odd Couple. The Caldwell, which many people say darkened its fare too quickly, mounted many provocative works over the past decades such as Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero, performed four months after it closed in New York in 2001. Look at the Carbonell Award best play nominees from 28 years ago: the aforementioned  Bent, The Glass Menagerie, ‘ night Mother, Home and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.

Three other trends characterize what we’re seeing on stage today. First, niche programming. The proliferation and accessibility of digital media has produced an overwhelming array of art and entertainment, but that means audiences no longer sit through something that doesn’t interest them. What speaks to them is as close as their Ipad. Audiences are splitting into splinter groups with no patience. They nurture an expectation that their parochial artistic taste and world view will be matched precisely by the art they choose to pay for.

That has led to the dominance of niche theaters whose close adherence to their vision becomes the essential draw for an audience. Dramaworks’ audiences complain when a work strays outside its mission of modern classics. The Maltz’s niche is mainstream theater itself.

The second change, slow but sure, is artistic directors dabbling with more stylized theatricality over the heightened reality of naturalism. For decades, traditional Florida audiences were most comfortable with theater grounded in the world they knew, even more so since 9/11. As every generation ages, they want to preserve what they have; they have become less willing to risk, less adventurous. They prefer a reaffirmation of what they have sacrificed to create.

Conversely, the theater artists, who are mostly a generation younger, relish experimentation, finding their own unique way to their own exclusive vision. That often means using more imagistic, intentionally artificial styles. It doesn’t hurt that the production values also are a lot cheaper.

Death and Harry Houdini

This has resulted in far more risk with works that they hope will attract their peers if not their parents. Companies like Mad Cat Theatre have always pursued this avenue, but now you see it elsewhere such as GableStage taking on Sarah Kane’s apocalyptic Blasted and Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s myth-infused The Brothers Size. Tiny companies like Infinite Abyss and Thinking Cap specialize in edgier works like Snow White Trash and Kane’s Cleansed. The Arsht, usually host to The Lion King and La Boheme, has imported the highly stylized The Sparrow and Death and Harry Houdini from The House Theatre of Chicago, energizing the imagination of local artists in the audience. The PlayGround Theatre, which has specialized in imagistic productions for children, will apply those values to its upcoming adaptation of The Three Sisters for adults this season as it morphs into the Miami Theater Center. Yet, unlike Orlando, South Florida has no local fringe festival other than preliminary experiments like the Arsht’s Miami Made.

Third, and most important, is the unheralded move to develop new plays, the ultimate risk that attracts younger audiences and energizes the creative souls of its artists.

At one time, Florida Stage was the primary home of never before seen works. When it imploded last year, the conventional wisdom was that new works would nearly vanish. The opposite occurred.

New Theatre in Coral Gables has long been committed to new work, serving as the crucible for Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics, work by local writers Michael McKeever, Mario Diament and Lauren Feldman. But it has become an active member of the National New Play Networks’ rolling world premiere program and has stepped up its new play investment with works by homegrown playwrights Steven Chambers, David Caudle and Juan Sanchez, plus frequent visitor Robert Caisley.

A Measure of Cruelty

Mosaic Theatre in Plantation commissioned its first new work last spring, A Measure of Cruelty. Mad Cat Theatre has almost always done new works by Miami-based playwrights such as Paul Tei, Marco Ramirez and Ivonne Azurdia. Women’s Theatre Project in Fort Lauderdale has featured the work of South Floridian Terry Lawrence. Promethean Theatre hosted several world premieres including works by Sanchez. Three of the first four shows at the fledgling Zoetic Stage were written by its co-founders McKeever and Christopher Demos-Brown. Alliance Theatre Lab in Miami Lakes has commissioned new works by members David Michael Sirois and Mark Della Ventura. Actors Playhouse commissioned Cruz’s Color of Desire and lighter summer shows like the recent Real Men Sing Show Tunes. Short play festivals pop up like Kardashians on South Beach.

This has resulted in a tenuous but concrete test lab for local playwrights – and a reason not to move right away to New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. But it hasn’t been enough. Cruz, Feldman, Caudle, Azurdia and Ramirez all left town, with Tei parachuting back in. McCraney had to become an international success before he had a full professional production in his home town.

To Each His Dulcinea:  Dreaming Big

What kind of theater community do we want? Goals will differ, but identifying any at all targets obstacles, solutions and priorities for limited resources. What follows is just one vision. While each item sounds like an unfeasible cliché, each platitude is a stand-in for a pragmatic reality.

First, South Florida has the potential to be a major hub for professional regional theater notable for ever-deepening quality and making the most of its multi-cultural and youth-oriented environment. It likely could not achieve the scale of Chicago’s massive theater scene, but it could earn a national reputation akin to Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver or Atlanta. Some theaters would cluster together in a synergistic district in each of the three counties. The quality would be consistent enough that audiences would be willing to allow theaters to experiment and even allow a show to fail artistically on occasion.

A high profile would attract local residents and tourists alike. Theater companies’ fiscal health would allow them to look past their current season and plan for expansion. They would pay artists enough money not just to stay, but to entice professionals to relocate here.

It would foster thriving satellite facets in community theaters that provide training opportunities for amateurs and would-be professionals. Youth-oriented theaters, conservatories, colleges and public school programs would recruit the audiences and artists of tomorrow. Government and business leaders would acknowledge it as an economic engine that supports other attractions and industries.

Above all, the work would enthrall audiences and challenge the artists, regardless of whether it was a warhorse farce, a recent two-character drama or an avant-garde envelope-pusher. The menu would encompass tastes from Neil Simon to Conor McPherson, Shakespeare to Sondheim.

But the immediate and overarching immediate goal needs to be building an awareness and an appetite for theater among Boomers, their children and grandchildren.

Before The Parade Passes By: A Call to Action

A generation ago, the idea of Miami being home to a world-famous ballet company, a renowned opera company, a first-class performing arts venue and a state of the art classical music venue must have seemed laughable. Therefore, creating a similarly nationally-recognized regional hub for theater is not a pipe dream. This is just a fledgling community at a decisive point in its development.

What’s needed is for a small group of artists and partisans to provide the leadership to create that concerted, coordinated campaign that presses this community to double down its bet. It’s time for the people who complain about the state of the arts to invest that energy into action. This may be preaching to the choir, but the choir needs to listen up. Get out there and evangelize.

Exactly how? First, we’ll identify what the problems are in the next essay and then propose some concrete solutions in the third.

Standing still is suicide.

— — — — —

Wednesday’s essay:  Ya Got Trouble Right Here in River City: The Challenges (click here)
Friday’s essay: And Make Our Garden Grow: Solutions


The opinions here are mine except where noted, but they were informed and synthesized from ideas generously shared by many people over the past two years.

Among those who spent 1 ½ to 2 hours speaking for this article this summer, we thank Joe Adler, producing artistic director and co-founder of GableStage; Antonio Amadeo, actor, director and co-founder of Naked Stage; Stephanie Ansin, artistic director of Miami Theatre Center; Andie Arthur, executive director of the South Florida Theater League; Nan Barnett, consultant and former managing director of Florida Stage; Mary Becht, former director of the Broward County Cultural Division; Sue Ellen Beryl, managing director of Palm Beach Dramaworks; Rena Blades, CEO of  Palm Beach Cultural Council; Linnea Brown, director of public relations, Maltz Jupiter Theatre; Anne Chamberlain, actress; Mark Della Ventura, actor and playwright; Christopher Demos-Brown, playwright and co-founder of Zoetic Stage; Todd Allen Durkin, actor; Arturo Fernandez, actor and co-founder of Ground Up and Rising; William Hayes, producing artistic director of Palm Beach Dramaworks; Andrew Kato, producing artistic director of Maltz Jupiter Theatre; Ann Kelly, executive director/business manager of Mad Cat Theater; Margaret M. Ledford, president of the South Florida Theatre League; Amy London, director, stage manager, actress, producer and executive director of the Carbonell Awards; Robin Reiter-Faragalli, philanthropy consultant and arts advocate; Kelley Shanley, president and CEO of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts; Deborah Sherman, actress and co-founder of The Promethean Theatre; Scott Shiller, executive vice president of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts; Richard Jay Simon, executive/artistic director of Mosaic Theatre; David Sirois, actor and playwright; Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs; Barbara Stein, executive producing director of Actors Playhouse; Louis Tyrrell, former artistic director of Florida Stage and current artistic director of the Theatre at Arts Garage, and Savannah Whaley of Pierson Grant Public Relations.

During  the past two years, we’ve also had informal and email conversations about these topics with scores of people including Derelle Bunn, executive producer/artistic director of Broward Stage Door; publicist Charlie Cinnamon; Matthew Korinko, co-artistic director, Slow Burn Theatre Company; Rebekah Lanae Lengel, managing producer of  Miami Light Project; John Manzelli, co-founder Naked Stage and artistic director of City Theatre; Michael Peyton, director of corporate sponsorship and underwriting for WLRN; Jennifer Sardone-Shiner, director of marketing at the Maltz;  Larry Stein, president of Actors Playhouse; Paul Tei, co-founder of Mad Cat Theatre Company; Tricia Trimble, managing director of the Maltz; and many members of the Carbonell judging panel and the American Theatre Critics Association.

We also have conferred about the issues and gathered data with artistic and managing directors and other staffers at Actors Equity Association; Actors Theatre of Louisville; Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.; Chicago Theatre League; Broadway Theatre Center comprising Skylight Opera Theatre, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Renaissance Theaterworks; Steppenwolf Theater Company; Chicago Shakespeare Company; Milwaukee Repertory Theater; Goodman Theater; Lookinglass Theatre (Chicago); Theater Wit and Stage 773 (Chicago); Black Ensemble Cultural Center (Chicago); Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

We looked at IRS 990 tax returns as well as grant records for many companies with the help from Adriana Perez of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, James Shermer of the Broward County Cultural Division and Jan Rodusky of the Palm Beach Cultural Council.

Once again, our thanks.

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11 Responses to On the Wheels of a Dream South Florida Theater: What It Is And What It Can Be

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